So many Horta gems, so little time. The European capital is dotted with buildings from Belgium’s own architecture revolutionary and Art Nouveau’s leading light, Victor Horta. In case of limited time, the four town houses selected by UNESCO to be on their World Heritage List are a good place to start. Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay, Hôtel van Eetvelde, and Atelier Horta are all revolutionary in their use of industrial materials like steel and glass, wrought iron features, meticulous wood paneling, and sunbathed living spaces.
It was Gustave Strauven – mentored by Horta and assistant to the creation of Hôtel van Eetvelde – who took over the Art Nouveau baton from the modernist pioneer. His splashy Maison Saint-Cyr on Ambiorix Square reveals an unequaled commitment to wrought iron embellishments and an overall flamboyant aesthetic.
Saved by the grace of two Art Nouveau-loving owners, the former home of artist couple Paul and Caroline Cauchie is now open to the public every first weekend of the month. Most striking, however, is its façade, embellished by Paul Cauchie in the sgraffito wall paintings for which he would become known. One of the golden murals bears the words ‘Par nous, pour nous,’ or ‘By us, for us,’ indicating the duo’s loving decoration of their own living space.
The Musical Instruments Museum atop the Mont des Arts is one of the greatest examples of modernism in Brussels, yet it wasn’t designed by Horta like many tourists mistakingly assume. This particular beauty is from the hand of Paul Saintenoy, who originally designed it to house the Old England department store, as the name engravings still indicate. The façade is defined by a plethora of glass, finished with wrought iron rails of plant motifs and a unique cast-iron turret.
A steamboat-shaped building rising up beside Ixelles’ most famous square and looking out over its pond, the Flagey is a fine example of Art Deco craftsmanship. Besides designing its monumental look, Joseph Diongre created studios with world-class acoustics for the former national radio and television institute.
This mastodon on the Koekelberg hill is the largest Art Deco building in the world and one of the largest basilicas. For decades, it seemed as if the ambitious masterpiece would never be completed, with construction detained by two world wars and a persistent lack of funds. Now Albert Van Huffel’s Art Deco place of worship dominates the west part of the Brussels skyline with its green copper dome.
The L’Archiduc bar has known many lives as it nears its 80th birthday. From a discrete rendez-vous place for businessmen and their secretaries to jazz temples frequented by the likes of Miles Davis, it’s easy to see why the Art Deco establishment continues to exercise such a gravitational pull. A buzzer and cast-iron door will let you enter an atmospheric setting complete with original wooden benches, rosewood bar, and art gallery, all elegantly combined by F. Van Ruykensvelde.
Rebuilt after a fire in the Neoclassical style that Austrian rule dictated at the time, Brussels’ spacious Royal Square exudes grandeur to the fullest. The symmetrical building blocks that surround it and its central Godfrey of Bouillion statue include the Magritte Museum in the splendidly renovated Altenloh Hotel, the Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg Church, and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts.
When it comes to Gothic hallmarks, there’s no beating Brussels’ Town Hall and its army of façade statues.
Brabantian Gothic architecture reached its apex with the completion of St Michael and St Gudula’s on top of the Treurenberg hill in the 16th century. The inside of the cathedral – now the setting for royal weddings, funerals, and Sunday carillon concerts – has been kept remarkably sober for a Gothic construction. The eye is free to wander along the magnificent vaulted ceiling and enormous stained-glass windows depicting biblical scenes.
A 19th-century flâneur’s ultimate dream, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is 200 meters of strolling past luxurious shop displays. One of the first of its kind, the popularity of young architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer’s glazed arcade spoke volumes about the urban experience the modern city dweller longed – and still longs – for. The multi-purpose, Italian-style space incorporates everything from high-end boutiques to restaurants and a cinema theater.